Transitions

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Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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Good Morning! It’s a pleasure to be in the pulpit of Marsh Chapel again during this first week of Epiphany. My thanks to Dean Hill and the rest of my Marsh Chapel Colleagues for the opportunity to speak with you today.

Well, we’ve transitioned into a new liturgical season within the church this week. Christmas is officially over, the magi made it to the manger! We’re all getting back into our post-holiday work routines, or preparing for the next semester to begin. I don’t know about you, but the transition from the holiday season has been somewhat of a rough one for me – waking up before 8am, no more afternoon naps, watching less TV. Well, ok, so maybe marginally less TV – that’s been harder for me to transition out of. Over the past week or so, my husband and I have been binge-watching the HGTV show, “Property Brothers.” If you haven’t seen this show, the premise is basically that a couple or an individual is looking to purchase a home, have great expectations for what they want in a home, come to realize that those expectations cost a lot of money, and then end up purchasing a “fixer-upper” home that gets renovated. One of the brothers is a real estate agent, so he helps them find and purchase the home, and the other brother is a contractor who creates the vision of all the things that the homeowners want and executes it for them. I don’t know why, but the process and drama of the show is addictive…episode after episode you get drawn into the personal quirks of the potential homeowners and the unexpected problems they run into in renovating a house. But it hit me a few days ago that the storylines in Property Brothers are really similar to the narrative of the Baptism of Jesus in Luke. No really, there’s a connection.

One of the big parts of the show is the brothers, Drew and Jonathan, getting the homeowners on board with doing renovations. There’s usually a bit of played up drama at this point – people wanting a house that they can just move into instead of having to do work on an older, out of date house.  Most of the homebuyers at some point complain about having to do renovations – some about the time it will take or the expense, but most about not really being able to see how a rundown place could be transformed into something new. How what they desire can come about in a space that they can only see in one way. The property that they purchase will undergo a transformation, and they themselves will go through a great period of transition, of living their lives through this process of transformation. Although his primary job on the show is to be the designer/contractor, Jonathan ends up reaffirming and consoling the homebuyers that the vision really will come true, they just have to be patient and realize that he does know what he is talking about. And in the end, it usually ends up working out – the property brothers have helped individuals find a home and make it fit their renovated vision.

What does a reality television show about home purchasing and repair have to do with today’s Gospel lesson about the Baptism of Jesus? Well, they both describe the complicated nature of transitional moments. Transitions are hard. Whether it be buying a new home, starting a new job, grieving a loss, or some other massive life change, the period of going from what was to what will be can be daunting. But at the same time, it can also be exciting. New possibilities, new relationships, new discoveries about yourself. But in that transitional moment, the mixture of old and new, of intimidation and expectation, can be overwhelming.

In today’s gospel, we learn of Jesus’ baptism and the events surrounding it. We encounter John the Baptist, a relative of Jesus (according to Luke), who recognized who Jesus was when both of them were still in utero.  Remember, back in Advent? He leaped in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to tell her she was pregnant. It’s that same person. John has special knowledge of Jesus’ origin and who he will become, so it’s not surprising that he plays an important part in the start of Jesus’ ministry.

I will say that it’s unfortunate that our gospel reading starts where it does today, because before this section that is focused on the baptism of Jesus, there is a description of what John is doing and his interaction with the people he attracts. I think this is integral to actually understanding why the people thought John was the Messiah and also how John’s ministry connects with Jesus’ ministry. For some context, I will read part of it for you now:

Luke 3: 2-14

… the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight. 
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth; 
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

John is called by God in the wilderness to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, as stated in the book of Isaiah. So he begins his prophetic ministry, baptizing those who seek repentance for their sins. However, John does not just baptize those who seek to be included as part of those who are chosen. He is also very clear that it’s not just claiming one’s heritage as part of the family of Abraham that will save the people, but that they must also behave in appropriate ways, acceptable to God, which will support the community. He instructs them to share what they have, to not cheat other members of the society, and to not abuse any power that they might have in positions they hold in society.

Doesn’t this all sound a little bit familiar? I think it helps to set the context for the gospel reading we heard today – John is not just preparing the way for Jesus by baptizing people, but also reminding the people of the words of God found in the book of Leviticus to love their neighbors as they love themselves, especially when it comes to fair distribution of property. John points back to the historical roots of Judaism. He uses his position as a prophetic voice to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. However, like some enthusiastic groups of people, the crowds misidentify John as the Messiah. Instead of taking this honor and running with it, John says “no, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not the Messiah.” John knows his role – bridging the old ways of Judaism with the new reality that will be found in the life and death of Christ.

John is a transitional figure – he has the vision of the future, but emerges from the past. He fits within the prophetic tradition of Judaism, but knows that the Messiah will bring a change to the way people understand their relationship with each other and with God. John knows his role and his position in this narrative – he is at the threshold of something new, and part of his role is to prepare the people for this great transition – how they should behave before and after this transition takes place. Luke’s gospel is specifically focused on Jesus’ ministry with the poor and the oppressed, and John’s message of both repentance and goodwill to others continues this idea.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t tell us the story of Jesus’ baptism the way most of us think of it. There’s no mention of the Jordan River, in fact, the actual occurrence of Jesus’ baptism almost seems like an afterthought. Jesus “was baptized” – there’s no grand description of Jesus wading into the Jordan with John, and John baptizing him. Instead, it’s the events and the people surrounding Jesus’ baptism that make it special. The practice of baptism in Judaism at this time was a practice of repentance – those who were sinful came to repent of their sin and be washed clean. So it would seem that Jesus would not need to be baptized in this manner according to the teachings of the church. But Jesus chooses to be baptized. Not individually, as some sort of demonstration for others, but as a part of the general crowd of people that were baptized. It is only afterward, when Jesus is praying that a new element of Baptism is introduced. The Holy Spirit descends in a form like a dove and God’s voice booms a pronouncement that Jesus is God’s son and that God is well pleased with him. It is a dramatic appearance of the trinity, to not only Jesus but to all who are present for baptism.

Baptism goes through its own type of transformation in this story as well. While it retains its meaning as being washed clean and repentant of sin, it also endows the Holy Spirit. As we saw in the reading from Acts today, the Holy Spirit doesn’t always necessarily come at the same time as the physical act of baptism – it could actually come before, during, or after the practice of baptism by water, according to the Bible. Baptism washes us clean and also seals us with the Holy Spirit. We are marked as one of God’s children, as part of a community, as part of the Body of Christ.  We welcome each other into the community of Christ through this practice.

Luke’s description of Jesus’ baptism also highlights the importance of community in the process of baptism. Jesus identifies himself as part of the community by being baptized with all the others who were present. God’s announcement to Jesus about who he his is not just for Jesus Jesus’ identity is not a secret, and the start of Jesus’ ministry to the world, an important focus of Luke’s gospel, is ready to begin.

We encounter transitions every day. Some transitions are barely noticeable. We learn new things, we encounter new people, we try new foods, we get slightly older – but all of these moments affect who we are as people. The cliché that you are not the same person as you were yesterday is true. But we tend to notice transitions when they are big. Sometimes transitions are actions we choose to take – we change jobs, move, get married – and some are not – a loved one passes away, we lose our job, we have a major medical crisis. For the first kind, we can attempt to choose how those transitions will happen – at the very least when they will occur. But most of the transitions in our lives have aspects that we have no control over. An example from Property Brothers – the homeowners choose to undergo renovations, the host of the show chooses what the design elements will be, but inevitably there tends to be an unforeseen problem that both the homeowners and the designer have to deal with. We try to make plans for our transitional points, but sometimes life doesn’t allow those plans to go the way we want.

Transitional moments do not have to be an individual moment either – we go through transitions as a community at both the local and global levels. Even as a church we experience transitional moments within our greater social context that point us toward new ways of seeing the world and engaging with it. These moments of transition can be harder to deal with as people can have different approaches as to how to deal with the problems that are spurring a transitional moment. Unfortunately sometimes our reactions during these transitional moments can be delayed because of the many diverse opinions within society. This can continue to create harm. For example, delays in our response to climate change as a society have continued our dependence on fossil fuels and continued the emission of greenhouse gases that have created irrevocable damages to the earth. Our failure as a country to adequately address issues of gun control have led to more mass shootings, more innocent deaths, to the point that reports of them have become commonplace in our media. These moments of transition are opportunities. They are not just events that happen out there in the world, they are moments that affect all of us. What we can do is remember who we are as members of the Body of Christ.

We do have a choice in how we respond to those unforeseen moments within transition. There is one thing that is always constantly present to us: God. God is present to John as a voice in the wilderness, God is present in Jesus, God presents Godself in bodily form like a dove through the Holy Spirit, God speaks to Jesus and lets both Jesus and those present know that this is God’s son. God is always there to rely on and direct us forward. Our baptism reminds of our connection with the trinity. God’s constant presence to us does not mean our lives will be easy, and it would be foolish to think that this would be the case. However, God’s constant presence does mean that we should remember the love of God in how we treat one another and the world around us. We are called to love ourselves and to love our neighbors in a radical way through the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Often times, the way that we are able to see God’s presence is in community with others. Reaching out to our community for help and support during times of transition can be a helpful aid in making it through this liminal state. The wisdom and assistance of others can help us adjust to new ways of being in the world, or help us to think about how to move forward from a pivotal transitional moment. Even Jesus had a community of support around him as he was about to begin his ministry.

As we continue to transition into the future, dealing with our own personal periods of transition and our larger societal moments of transition we can remember some things. One is shown through Luke’s narrative today – that transition into a new way of being does not mean that we have to leave behind those things that were in the past – they have helped to influence who we are and will become. The past can inform our decisions – it is like the bare bones structure of a house upon which we can build. We cannot forget our past because without it we have no foundation. But we also cannot be afraid to make transitions into the future. We cannot be afraid to speak out against injustice, to change how we live our lives because we think it will be too hard, or to come together as community and support one another through these transitions. While daunting, these transitions are also exciting because of the possibilities they bring about. Like John, we need to have a vision for the future. We cannot get caught up in our own egos, misidentifying ourselves as outside of the problems or more powerful than we actually are as individuals, but instead see that at the heart of all changes and transitions there needs to be support from one another and, most importantly support from God.

Amen.

–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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